6 key takeaways from Idaho’s 2018 election

Brad Little gives an acceptance speech after becoming Idaho’s new governor

Brad Little addressed a crowd at the Republican election night party on Tuesday, Nov. 6 after the AP announced Little as Idaho's new governor.
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Brad Little addressed a crowd at the Republican election night party on Tuesday, Nov. 6 after the AP announced Little as Idaho's new governor.

The votes are cast and counted. What are the lessons from Idaho’s Tuesday election? Here are six takeaways:

1. Turnout spiked in early voting — and just kept going

A whole lot of people turned out in Ada County to vote in Tuesday’s midterm election.

In the governor’s race, 129,285 county residents cast ballots on Election Day. That’s more than the 125,233 who voted on Election Day in 2016, when Donald Trump won the presidency.

“That’s pretty crazy,” said Phil McGrane, Ada County’s chief deputy clerk, who won the clerk’s job Tuesday. “This was more like a presidential election than it was a midterm.”

The increase reflects the county’s growing population. But there were several other reasons for it, said Gary Moncrief, political science professor emeritus at Boise State University.

“First, while there are a lot of negatives to a polarized political environment, one consequence is more citizen activism and interest,” Moncrief said by email. “When people think the results have real consequences, they are more likely to participate.”

Second, he said, digital media campaigns targeted voters with very specific messages. And the propositions — especially Proposition 2, to expand Medicaid coverage — “seemed to motivate some people” to get out and vote, Moncrief said.

Turnout was lower in more-conservative Canyon County, where 72 percent of its 89,114 registered voters went to the polls. Still, that was nearly 17 percentage points higher than the 55.3 percent who voted in the 2014 midterm.

Gem and Elmore counties also showed increases. “It was the busiest day for us since Barack Obama was first elected in 2008,” said Vivian Garcia, an Elmore County elections specialist.

Overall state turnout figures were not available Wednesday.

Election photo do.jpg
Voters wait Tuesday for a voting booth to open up at the District 19 precinct at Riverglen Junior High School in Northwest Boise. A polarized national political climate and the citizen-proposed Medicaid-expansion measure on Idaho’s ballot likely contributed to extraordinary voter turnout, a Boise political scientist says. Darin Oswald doswald@idahostatesman.com

2. Ada County got more blue

“Idaho is still a very red state,” said Gov.-elect Brad Little during his victory speech Tuesday night at the Riverside Hotel.

But Ada County is headed the other way. In the state’s most populous county — home to 27 percent of Idaho’s population — Democrat Paulette Jordan eked by Little. Democrat Kristin Collum beat Republican Janice McGeachin by six points in the lieutenant governor’s race, and Democrat Cindy Wilson ended the night with a 20-point lead over incumbent GOP schools Superintendent Sherri Ybarra. Even Democratic political newcomer Aaron Swisher beat longtime U.S. Congressman Mike Simpson by 18 points.

When folded in with results from around the state, those Democratic gains were quickly diluted.

But Ada County voters largely flipped an entire legislative district, West Boise’s District 15, from red to blue. Incumbent Republican Reps. Lynn Luker and Patrick McDonald both lost their races to Democrats Steve Berch and Jake Ellis, respectively. The district’s senate seat came down to a six-vote difference between incumbent Republican Fred Martin and Democrat Jim Bratnober. A recount is under way.

And the Ada County Commission will now have two Democrats. Diana Lachiondo and Kendra Kenyon unseated Jim Tibbs, an incumbent, and blocked former commissioner Sharon Ullman from returning to the board. The last time Ada County had two Democratic commissioners may have been as long ago as 1976, according to Idaho political historian and former Cecil Andrus staffer Marc C. Johnson.

Of the county’s 27 legislative seats, 14 are now held by Democrats, 12 by Republicans. (Amid the recount, Martin’s seat remains up in the air.) Of the county’s nine partisan elected offices, six are now held by Republicans and three by Democrats.

3. Statewide offices stayed red ...

Idaho Democrats worked to be viewed as a competitive force this year, buoyed by Jordan’s high-energy campaign, record primary turnout and a national push by Democrats and young voters to bring on a “blue wave.” None of it was enough to flip any of Idaho’s seven statewide executive-branch seats.

Democrats again came the closest to winning the superintendent race. But Ybarra still beat Wilson by almost three points statewide despite public criticism from both sides of the aisle over her performance in her first term.

For one of Idaho’s open seats, state treasurer, Democrats didn’t field a candidate at all.

“Every election cycle we hear Democrats are ready to make a big surge. And every election cycle turns out the same,” said Idaho Politics Weekly columnist Chuck Malloy.

Simply put, he explained, Idaho is deep red and changing its color even slightly will be difficult.

“You get into the rural areas of Idaho and they flat out won’t vote for a Democrat no matter how good he or she might seem to be,” Malloy said. “If it is a Republican who tends to be out of favor with a lot of people, as Ybarra is, the thought pattern, especially in rural areas, is ‘Yeah, but she is a Republican and that is better than a Democrat.’ ”

4. But the blue wave did make a small splash

Idaho Democrats did make some headway in the Legislature, flipping at least five seats. In addition to the West Boise seats, south-central Idaho voters opted to go with Democrat Muffy Davis over GOP incumbent Rep. Steve Miller, and Pocatello voters traded GOP Rep. Dustin Manwaring for Democrat Chris Abernathy. In Moscow, controversial Republican Sen. Dan Foreman lost to Democrat David Nelson.

Republicans did gain one legislative seat — Jordan’s former North Idaho House seat. Her replacement, Margie Gannon, lost by two points to Republican challenger Bill Goesling.

Come January, Idaho’s 105-member Legislature will still be solidly red, comprising 83 Republicans and 21 Democrats, with the outcome of Martin’s seat still unknown.

She lost in her bid to be Idaho's governor. But she's proud of her work and supporters.

5. The governor’s race reflected the status quo

Jordan can count her surprise primary victory, statewide and national interest in her historic bid to be governor, and raising more than $1 million from more than 11,000 supporters among her successes this year. But she did not move the needle compared to past elections in her bid for Idaho’s open governor’s seat.

Jordan received 38 percent of the vote, the same amount AJ Balukoff got in 2014 when he tried to unseat incumbent Gov. Butch Otter.

Wednesday, her campaign credited her with being a “catalyst for change in Idaho” in a press release that also tied her to national election results, including Democrats assuming control of the U.S. House of Representatives.

“I am not giving up on a brighter future for Idaho, and neither can you,” Jordan said in the release. “... I’m more inspired than ever, people want to see change. That strong shift doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time.”

Johnson, the former Andrus aide, put Jordan’s loss down to more than just voters’ party preferences — contrasting it with the Democrats elected in Ada County.

“Rather than contributing to the re-building of the Idaho Democratic Party, the Jordan campaign was more a series of missed opportunities,” he said. “She had many of the elements in place to begin revitalizing the party: a compelling personal story, the seeming ability to draw in new or disaffected voters and the ability to generate a certain amount of excitement, but unfortunately she leaves with not much more than a scrapbook of national press clippings that mostly overstated her appeal to Idaho voters.”

6. A big year for women — though not in the Legislature

Idaho did break new ground when it comes to getting women nominated for and voted into statewide offices.

Both the major-party nominees for lieutenant governor and for superintendent were women, with GOP nominee Janice McGeachin’s win making her Idaho’s first female lieutenant governor. The new state treasurer also is a woman, Republican Julie Ellsworth. And Democrats nominated Jill Humble for secretary of state, though like Jordan, her bid was unsuccessful.

Come January, for the first time, three of Idaho’s seven statewide offices will be held by women.

Idaho Republican lt. gov. candidate Janice McGeachin said she is thankful to be among family and friends on Election Day. She or her Democratic opponent, Kristin Collum, will become the first woman to serve as a lieutenant governor of Idaho.

Women did not fare so well in the Legislature, losing three seats. Next year the 105-member Legislature will include 30 women and 75 men.

“Even though some women lost their races this year, having more women on the ballot can have positive effects. It can help them lay the groundwork for future campaigns.,” said Jaclyn Kettler, an assistant professor who specializes in American politics in the School of Public Service at Boise State University.

“Research shows having women on the ballot can also help encourage other women to run,” Kettler continued. “Moreover, having women on the ballot can sometimes shift attention to different issues, like the issue of sexual harassment in many congressional races with women. In addition to the benefits of having women on the ballot, having more women in statewide offices can be important role models and having more women in the party pipeline.“

Cynthia Sewell is Idaho Statesman’s political and investigative reporter. Contact her at (208) 377-6428, csewell@idahostatesman.com or @CynthiaSewell on Twitter.